TAMPA — Before the bones found new life, Taft Richardson Jr. carried them in his pockets.
He gently caressed the remains of chickens, turkeys, cats, house rats. He thought about the life lost. He waited for divine intervention to take his next step.
When it hit, he'd piece the bones together smoothly with a mix of paste and crushed bone. A crucifix emerged from cat, pig and cow bones. A crane came from a rooster, a raccoon, a dog. There were fish, a cobra, a lizard, even the head of John the Baptist.
"Bones, man,'' he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2006. "It's like I can keep the animal alive if I make something out of his bones, a-huh. The bones aren't dead to me, a-huh. Sometimes I can pick up a bone and the vibe is so strong I got to put it down, man. Something about bones is sacred to me.''
His sculptures, he said, were resurrections.
• • •
Mr. Richardson, a well-known Tampa folk artist, community volunteer and teacher, died Sunday after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 65.
He was born in Zephyrhills and grew up in Tampa. His father worked on cars and built boats, and his mother was known as a talented herbal healer.
Young Taft always played with bones, but he never understood why. Then, in his early 20s, he polished off a plate of beef ribs. In the bony remains stacked high, he saw a giraffe. It was God leading him to his calling, he later said.
Eventually, he swore off meat and killing of any kind, refusing even to squash a bug. He began collecting bones from farms or road kill on the street, letting nature clean them in his back yard. Sometimes, friends donated scraps from dinner.
His early work was dark tan, covered in varnish. Later, he left the bones a natural color. He was a strong Christian, and the works were often based in the Bible with names like Stepping Out On Truth — You Must Be Born Again, Watch and Pray and Within My Aura.
"I've been studying folk art for 30 years, and I would say he was one of, if not the most extraordinary folk artists I've ever met because the meaning of his work is so amazingly powerful," said Kristin Congdon, a University of Central Florida professor who featured Mr. Richardson in a book she co-authored, Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art. "When you met him, his work became even so much more powerful. You understood what bones meant to him and you understood the love it took."
• • •
Mr. Richardson had 10 children and 35 grandchildren. Hundreds more young people felt his impact.
He devoted his life to getting at-risk kids off the street and inspired by something creative. He ran several organizations teaching them to paint, sculpt, dance and grow plants. They frequented his home in Tampa's Spring Hill neighborhood, sculpting little works from bones or painting rainbow designs on the walls.
"If the child can walk, he can dance,'' Mr. Richardson once told the St. Petersburg Times. "If he can color with a crayon, he can paint. … It's a struggle, man, from the womb to the tomb. We have to take care of our children.''
They responded to his gentle nature, his long white beard, his stories of personal inspiration. They called him "Granddaddy." They called his home the Garden of Eden. "He was simple. He didn't have much, but what he did have to spread around was love," said his granddaughter, Sharita Moultry, 28. "He always wanted to show children that there is a way out of no way."
Until a month before he died, he frequented a Tampa community center teaching kids art, physical fitness, fashion design, crafts. "These are kids that he felt society had not cared about," said Congdon. "That they had been tossed away like old bones."
His job was to resurrect them.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.